A series of deaths involving people who ignored warning lights and crossing barriers to be hit by Brightline passenger trains triggered new calls for Florida and federal regulators to strengthen railroad safety measures.
In bills pending before the Florida Legislature, train owners would be required to pay for added improvements.
Four pedestrians and bicyclists have died at railroad crossings, one while Brightline tested trains and three since Jan. 12, the day before introductory train service on the 42-mile stretch from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale began for paying passengers. The company soon plans to extend service 25 miles south to Miami.
Brightline, a subsidiary of All Aboard Florida, said it has expanded “outreach” efforts using volunteers to explain the dangers of railroads and installed electronic warning signs at the busiest crossings.
Federal and state lawmakers are calling for additional safety features to be considered because of the fatalities that marred the launch of service. One of the deaths was reportedly a suicide.
Their requests come a month after All Aboard Florida closed on the sale of $600 million of private activity bonds issued through the Florida Development Finance Corp. to finance a portion of the system between Miami and West Palm Beach.
The 30-year deal attracted $3 billion in orders, and sold with a yield of 5.62%. Fitch Ratings assigned a junk BB-minus rating to the bonds.
On Friday, the company filed its first monthly construction report with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA filing system. The report said construction on the Miami train station is still under way, and that service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale began Jan. 13. It did not mention the fatalities.
All Aboard Florida has also received a $1.15 billion PAB allocation for Phase 2 of the project from the U.S. Department of Transportation, to finance improvements from West Palm Beach to Orlando.
The company has not announced if it will use the tax-exempt financing or continue pursuing a low-interest Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loan.
Despite the use of the term "high-speed rail" in connection with Brightline, trains on the opening segment where the fatalities took place run at a maximum of 79 miles per hour, the standard Federal Railroad Administration speed limit for ordinary passenger trains. Higher speeds are planned for yet-to-open segments of the Brightline system to Orlando.
State Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, has for a second year filed a bill that would require All Aboard Florida, and any other high-speed rail operator in the state, to install additional safety equipment at the owner’s expense.
The recent fatalities prompted Mayfield and other bill sponsors to hold a press conference Tuesday.
“These deaths are tragic and unacceptable which is why I have been pushing for high-speed passenger rail safety measures for the past two [legislative] sessions,” Mayfield said in a statement. “Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, I have been met with resistance every step of the way.”
The bill would create the Florida High-Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act, establishing minimum safety standards for high-speed passenger rail, including at a minimum installation of Positive Train Control to stop speeding trains and Remote Health Monitoring to observe various functions of operations, she said.
Other requirements would include requiring a railroad company to install or realign crossing gates and construct and maintain fencing around crossings. The Florida Department of Transportation would provide oversight.
“This act will prevent high-speed passenger rail companies from shifting upgrade and maintenance costs to the taxpayers,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield and officials in her district have suggested installing four-quadrant crossing gates and concrete medians recommended by not required by the Federal Railroad Administration. Such improvements would prevent motorists from driving around lowered gates.
Martin County engineer Terry Rauth said Tuesday that added improvements to the 349 at-grade crossings along Brightline’s route could cost about $1 million each or upwards of $349 million depending on the level of improvements each crossing requires.
A staff analysis of SB 572 says some federal regulations strictly preempt the ability of state and local authorities to impose requirements on railroads, “but state and local actions taken under their retained police powers are not preempted as long as they do not unreasonably interfere with railroad operations or the [Surface Transportation Board’s] regulatory programs.”
After a hearing Nov. 14, the Senate Transportation Committee passed SB 572 on a vote of 6-0.
Instead of a hearing on Tuesday, the Senate Community Affairs Committee held a workshop on the bill that was webcast, and drew sharp opposition from Brightline officials.
“Rail safety for passengers and pedestrians is a priority we all share,” said Patrick Goddard, president and chief operating officer of the company. “We’ve been focused on it for years, all the way up to the launch of passenger service Jan. 13.”
The deaths that occurred because of Brightline trains were “completely avoidable,” he said, adding that all victims had gone around warning systems that were working. Goddard said the railroad is already heavily regulated by federal agencies, and existing laws should be reviewed to see if they need to be changed nationally “rather than single out Brightline.”
The bill does not mention Brightline, although it defines a high-speed passenger rail system as any new intrastate passenger rail system that operates or proposes to operate its passenger trains at a maximum speed in excess of 80 miles per hour, and which was not carrying passengers before Jan. 1, 2017.
Brightline is the only passenger train system that falls within that definition. Its trains will travel up to 125 miles per hour on some parts of the line when the project is eventually completed between Miami and Orlando.
Goddard said the bill “seems like legislative overreach.”
Brightline general counsel Myles Tobin went further, saying that the proposed legislation is unconstitutional at both the federal and state levels.
“It’s important to know the Federal Railroad Administration governs and ensures the safety of all railroads in the United States,” he said.
When Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, asked if there was anything that could be done to address constitutional and preemption issues in order to consider local community needs, Tobin said, “No, because virtually all the items reference in the proposed statute are covered by federal regulations so that makes them preempted.”
Tobin also pointed out that some things required in the bill, such as installing Positive Train Control, will be done. That is also a federal requirement.
“This is not just about Brightline,” said Kate Pingolt Cotner, assistant county attorney for Indian River County. “It’s about high-speed rail in the state of Florida and we’re trying to lay a foundation. It’s a new reality for us and we need to protect our citizens.”
Cotner commended Brightline for recent actions to supplement public education about the dangers of rail crossings. But, she said, the number of freight trains currently coming through her county averages 12 to 14 a day. When Brightline is completely ramped up an extra 32 faster trains a day will be using the same rail corridor.
Many states have enacted their own rail safety legislation, Cotner said, adding that Mayfield’s bill is based on those laws. She also said that the authority to regulate at-grade traffic crossings lies with the FDOT.
Dan Wouters, fire-rescue chief for Martin County Emergency Management, said his county has 28 at-grade crossings that will be affected when Brightline extends service from West Palm Beach to Orlando.
Wouters supported the bill, and said additional safety improvements beyond what the Federal Railroad Administration requires are needed such as fencing.
“Our main population center revolves around that rail system,” Wouters said, adding that the train’s route is separated from populous areas in some other communities.
Several speakers opposed to SB 572 did not get the chance to speak because the meeting time ran out, and Lee asked them to submit “hard data to support your positions” so the committee can determine what to do with the bill.
In the House, Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, and Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, have filed a similar bill. HB 525 has been referred to three committees, although none have scheduled a hearing.
In addition to the Florida bills, members of Congress have also called for strengthening safety requirements. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a Jan. 18 letter to tell him how her agency is working with state and local officials and Brightline to address safety issues at-grade crossing problems.
“As the train service continues its operations and expands its service across the state, I urge the Department of Transportation to work with Brightline, the Florida Department of Transportation, local governments and the surrounding communities to implement appropriate safety measures and confirm proper infrastructure is in place to avoid future fatal accidents,” Rubio wrote.
In a letter to Chao Jan. 17, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said that Florida was in the top 10 states for rail-related fatalities and collisions in 2016. He asked Chao to examine the recent deaths and review crossings for additional safety improvements, “particularly for higher speed trains.”
The crossing deaths have brought attention to Brightline, though there are plenty of other transportation dangers in Florida, where an average of just under eight people every day were killed in car and truck crashes last year, according to the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.